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Free Gold Watch


The day I moved to the city, I picked a direction and walked that way. One block from my new apartment at the northeast corner of Baker and McAllister, I found a rack of tee shirts in front of a window with a large gold watch hanging behind the pane. Beyond the window -- and the watch -- silk screeners worked machines, pressing colors and assembling graphics.

Matthew Henri started his business without a name, apprenticing with a printer to make money for rent during college. He left the printer but couldn't leave the art. He began pressing shirts in his bathtub. As his designs developed, his aesthetic gained traction. Local retailers like Giant Robot and True started to carry Henri's nameless line. The business expanded, and Henri started printing on sweatshirts, wanting to line the interior of the garments with a print.

“We were thinking what would be funny to print on the inside of hoodies,” Henri said. “Maybe some butterfly knives or weird things like grenades.”

Those images weren't quite right. He remembers the epiphany: “‘We should print watches. That would be great, like a hustler style.’ That same night I was designing up these watches and started printing them.”

The image was not only successful; it proved symbolic. Henri felt the pull of the hustle as he traveled more, bringing his wares to huge tradeshows across the country (and, eventually, the world) where it was easy to feel anonymous. Everyone was screening shirts. To stand out Henri posted a sign that announced: “Free Gold Watch.”

“So many folks were coming up and being like, ‘Hey, where's my free gold watch?’” Henri said. “So I'd say, ‘You want it? Here it is.’ Then I'd show it to them, right there in the hoodie.”

Now nearly every garment has a long, black leather tag coming down from the neckline. On the tag: a printed gold watch.

Like the gold watch, most Free Gold Watch graphics pay homage to -- then distort, discolor, and expand on -- various cultural niches. Warhol's Marilyn print gets spliced into thick bars and colored with neon; the Morton Salt girl gets pixelated; the iconic Luis Vuitton logo and pattern is recast with the letters FGW. Even a simple all-over striped shirt -- which would easily look preppy in the hands of the wrong designer -- is left mottled and inexact, just the way Henri likes it.

“I like to keep things rough around the edges. I don't want things to be too perfect,” Henri said. But why? Henri points to a crease line, a barely-there line on one of his prints. “See that? I like that because it looks more hand-done. It reminds me of where it's from.”

Henri's pride fills his small, two-room space. The tiny storefront preserves the feel of the dry cleaning service Henri took over in 2006. Like Free Gold Watch's neon shirt graphics and the seven inch labels, Henri and his team take the physical selling space to another level, making the shop seem like the hippest dry cleaner on the block. New shirts hang in poly-bags -- literally “fresh pressed.” Even the clothes hangers are screened (they feature the outline of a girl Marty McFly wished he dated).

There are two racks of shirts and hoodies inside the McAllister store. Designs are printed in men's and women's sizes. Shirts are $34. Henri often keeps a rack of discount designs on the sidewalk in front of the unassuming space.

The more I explore the city, the more I notice the aesthetic dominance of Free Gold Watch. The brand is stocked in streetwear boutiques (like D-Structure) and gallery/design shops (like Park Life). But there's nothing quite like stopping by home base and seeing where the shirts begin.